K-12: Creating the 'Ideal' School

Believe it or not, there was once a time when the ideal purpose was to teach lots of stuff.  Any serious stuff.  The diameter of the Earth.  What's the Amazon?  Why do people still talk about Alexander the Great?

This might sound like an apocryphal story, but people had textbooks full of information, teachers discussed this information, and students learned it for life.

Facts and knowledge were assumed to have an intrinsic value.  You ought to know this stuff.  There was a second benefit in discussing lots of facts.  Your brain becomes more facile at juggling, comparing, and analyzing various kinds of new information.  This facility was once upon a time the very essence of education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau took things in a new direction, with his emphasis on emotion and feelings in education.  John Dewey and his gang started an emphasis on ideology and politics.  Point is, lots of educational theorists became more absorbed in theory than in education itself.

People discuss educational goals in abstract terms.  The emphasis isn't on acquiring facts and knowledge.  It is more like discussing a trip to Europe.  What should happen?  What feelings should we have?  What would be the perfect accommodations and the best meals?  What is the real meaning of a trip to Europe?

Brace yourself.  Here's one pundit's vision:

An ideal school environment works to build safe learning spaces for students.  An ideal school environment attracts teachers who are knowledgeable, care about student learning, and adapt their instruction to meet the needs of their learners.  An ideal school environment tries to be nimble and adjust as the needs of students shift.  An ideal school environment works hard to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of students.  An ideal school environment works hard to develop authentic measures for assessing student learning.  An ideal school environment recognizes that student success is a complex idea and measuring it must be accomplished with many tools.  An ideal school environment is led by people who value others, their voice and need for choice.

There is lots of talk about "learning" but no mention of what anybody actually learns.

Here's a  second vision of what constitutes the ideal school:

Teaching and learning occur in dynamic environments.  In these environments, teachers, students, materials, textbooks, technologies, and social structures are all related and interactive.  Learning and teaching occurs [sic] across five basic dimensions:

• Confidence and independence

• Knowledge and understanding

• Skills and strategies

• Use of prior and emerging experience

• Critical reflection

These five elements are known as the dimensions of learning.  They cannot be treated individually; instead, they are dynamically interwoven.  They describe the basic elements that must be part of every classroom learning (and teaching) experience.  Students learn best when these five dimensions are addressed and incorporated into every teaching/learning experience.

Really?!

third expert wants this future:

That school and life couldn't be more different is beside the point.  One takeaway is that schools only fail relative to a goal; if we changed the goal, it changes the nature of any failure.  Most challenges are challenges of scale, so I became curious here what 'school' would be like if it weren't so ambitious: Not if we stopped wanting the best for children, but rather if [we] designed a learning model that couldn't fail by design because its goal was enduring quality based on place, limits, scale, affections, sustainability, adaptivity, and patience.

It's easy to argue that such airy speculations serve little purpose.  For sure, they distract us from the real question.  What knowledge should children learn?  Specifically?  Here are the essentials.

Children learn to read in the first grade.  They learn cursive writing.  They learn basic arithmetic and can multiply two-digit numbers by the end of third grade.  They learn the multiplication tables.  They learn geography continuously so they know the names of the oceans, continents, biggest rivers, highest mountains, and major countries. 

As for history, the big names and the big events are the most entertaining things to learn and the things that people should know.  What's the big deal about the Egyptians?  Why are people still talking about the Great Wall of China?  Why are we still amazed by what the Romans did?  Of course, kids learn the names of the days and months.  They discuss Aesop's fables.  They learn the sort of basic things that every adult should know.

Ideally and easily enough, children learn at least One New Fact Each Day.  Let that be the official goal of every school.  After a few years, students have a real education.

Airy theorists seem satisfied to teach fewer facts to fewer people.  Real educators think big.  They always want to teach everything to every kid.

Think of Maria Montessori going to a school for learning-disabled children and announcing that she would teach them all.  Imagine Marvin Collins starting a school in a bad part of Chicago and announcing to the world that she would take all students and send them on to college.  And think of one of the great lines in all of education: "No one knows, no one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest."  Thank you, Gilbert Highet.

A lot of these theorists are obsessed with creating pretty learning environments.  Maybe the students need beanbag chairs or a new picture on the wall.  This stuff is probably overrated.  When there's nothing appealing to look at, you listen more acutely to words.  Put kids in a fancy new school with art on the walls: why listen to a lecture?

Finally, these theorists create fantasy schools while at the same time pretending not to notice real problems crippling real schools.  For example, we have elementary schools where few of the children can actually read.  Ergo, they can't learn geography, history, general science, etc.  So how can you talk about an ideal school?  Conversely, fix the reading problem, and almost any school is going to work.

Programs like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? continue to illuminate  our fascination with intriguing questions and odd morsels of knowledge.  A recent program asked about a "drupe."  Who has even heard this word?  The question listed four fruits and asked which one didn't fit.  The contestant figured out that three of the fruits had pits, and the other had seeds.  Ergo, he said "apple" and won.

Smart people are probably more innately curious, so they're easier to teach.  The real challenge for public schools is to excite curiosity in a greater range of average students.  That's the goal. 

Here's the trifecta of how to do it.  Interesting people teach interesting stuff in interesting ways.  As a society, we shouldn't chatter on about how to do this someday in the hazy future.  Let's do it today.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.

Believe it or not, there was once a time when the ideal purpose was to teach lots of stuff.  Any serious stuff.  The diameter of the Earth.  What's the Amazon?  Why do people still talk about Alexander the Great?

This might sound like an apocryphal story, but people had textbooks full of information, teachers discussed this information, and students learned it for life.

Facts and knowledge were assumed to have an intrinsic value.  You ought to know this stuff.  There was a second benefit in discussing lots of facts.  Your brain becomes more facile at juggling, comparing, and analyzing various kinds of new information.  This facility was once upon a time the very essence of education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau took things in a new direction, with his emphasis on emotion and feelings in education.  John Dewey and his gang started an emphasis on ideology and politics.  Point is, lots of educational theorists became more absorbed in theory than in education itself.

People discuss educational goals in abstract terms.  The emphasis isn't on acquiring facts and knowledge.  It is more like discussing a trip to Europe.  What should happen?  What feelings should we have?  What would be the perfect accommodations and the best meals?  What is the real meaning of a trip to Europe?

Brace yourself.  Here's one pundit's vision:

An ideal school environment works to build safe learning spaces for students.  An ideal school environment attracts teachers who are knowledgeable, care about student learning, and adapt their instruction to meet the needs of their learners.  An ideal school environment tries to be nimble and adjust as the needs of students shift.  An ideal school environment works hard to make the curriculum relevant to the lives of students.  An ideal school environment works hard to develop authentic measures for assessing student learning.  An ideal school environment recognizes that student success is a complex idea and measuring it must be accomplished with many tools.  An ideal school environment is led by people who value others, their voice and need for choice.

There is lots of talk about "learning" but no mention of what anybody actually learns.

Here's a  second vision of what constitutes the ideal school:

Teaching and learning occur in dynamic environments.  In these environments, teachers, students, materials, textbooks, technologies, and social structures are all related and interactive.  Learning and teaching occurs [sic] across five basic dimensions:

• Confidence and independence

• Knowledge and understanding

• Skills and strategies

• Use of prior and emerging experience

• Critical reflection

These five elements are known as the dimensions of learning.  They cannot be treated individually; instead, they are dynamically interwoven.  They describe the basic elements that must be part of every classroom learning (and teaching) experience.  Students learn best when these five dimensions are addressed and incorporated into every teaching/learning experience.

Really?!

third expert wants this future:

That school and life couldn't be more different is beside the point.  One takeaway is that schools only fail relative to a goal; if we changed the goal, it changes the nature of any failure.  Most challenges are challenges of scale, so I became curious here what 'school' would be like if it weren't so ambitious: Not if we stopped wanting the best for children, but rather if [we] designed a learning model that couldn't fail by design because its goal was enduring quality based on place, limits, scale, affections, sustainability, adaptivity, and patience.

It's easy to argue that such airy speculations serve little purpose.  For sure, they distract us from the real question.  What knowledge should children learn?  Specifically?  Here are the essentials.

Children learn to read in the first grade.  They learn cursive writing.  They learn basic arithmetic and can multiply two-digit numbers by the end of third grade.  They learn the multiplication tables.  They learn geography continuously so they know the names of the oceans, continents, biggest rivers, highest mountains, and major countries. 

As for history, the big names and the big events are the most entertaining things to learn and the things that people should know.  What's the big deal about the Egyptians?  Why are people still talking about the Great Wall of China?  Why are we still amazed by what the Romans did?  Of course, kids learn the names of the days and months.  They discuss Aesop's fables.  They learn the sort of basic things that every adult should know.

Ideally and easily enough, children learn at least One New Fact Each Day.  Let that be the official goal of every school.  After a few years, students have a real education.

Airy theorists seem satisfied to teach fewer facts to fewer people.  Real educators think big.  They always want to teach everything to every kid.

Think of Maria Montessori going to a school for learning-disabled children and announcing that she would teach them all.  Imagine Marvin Collins starting a school in a bad part of Chicago and announcing to the world that she would take all students and send them on to college.  And think of one of the great lines in all of education: "No one knows, no one can even guess how much knowledge a child will want and, if it is presented in the right way, will digest."  Thank you, Gilbert Highet.

A lot of these theorists are obsessed with creating pretty learning environments.  Maybe the students need beanbag chairs or a new picture on the wall.  This stuff is probably overrated.  When there's nothing appealing to look at, you listen more acutely to words.  Put kids in a fancy new school with art on the walls: why listen to a lecture?

Finally, these theorists create fantasy schools while at the same time pretending not to notice real problems crippling real schools.  For example, we have elementary schools where few of the children can actually read.  Ergo, they can't learn geography, history, general science, etc.  So how can you talk about an ideal school?  Conversely, fix the reading problem, and almost any school is going to work.

Programs like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? continue to illuminate  our fascination with intriguing questions and odd morsels of knowledge.  A recent program asked about a "drupe."  Who has even heard this word?  The question listed four fruits and asked which one didn't fit.  The contestant figured out that three of the fruits had pits, and the other had seeds.  Ergo, he said "apple" and won.

Smart people are probably more innately curious, so they're easier to teach.  The real challenge for public schools is to excite curiosity in a greater range of average students.  That's the goal. 

Here's the trifecta of how to do it.  Interesting people teach interesting stuff in interesting ways.  As a society, we shouldn't chatter on about how to do this someday in the hazy future.  Let's do it today.

Bruce Deitrick Price's new book is Saving K-12: What happened to our public schools? How do we fix them?  He deconstructs educational theories and methods on Improve-Education.org.